Set the Tone, Define the Audience

Yesterday, I read a terrific post on opening hooks by Jennifer Bray Weber over at Musetracks, where the writer talks about grabbing the reader's attention by beginning in the midst of quest or conflict - anything to create a lightning-quick emotional connection with the reader.

The opening lines have another function, too, to set the story's tone. Will it be sassy, whimsical, romantic? Mysterious, foreboding? When the reader flips open to the story's first page, it's an if she's seeing a contract from the author: This Is What You're in For, should you sign on for the experience.

It's a pretty good system, one that, when supported by an appropriate title, cover art, and cover or flap copy, gives the author the best chance of gaining the right audience, the one most likely to enjoy the story offered and (please, oh pretty please) go looking for more books by that same author.

For the purpose of discussion, let's take a look at a couple of opening paragraphs, both from romantic suspense novels published by the same house, same imprint.

From Christie Craig's Weddings Can Be Murder (Love Spell, June 2008):
Yesterday, Carl Hades had been shot at by a man wearing a black thong and a pink silk nightie. Even in his line of work, that was hard for a devout heterosexual male to digest.

I still laugh every time I read that. :)

Here's another, from my upcoming Beneath Bone Lake (Love Spell, June 2009):

The boatman’s paddle dug deep beneath the moss-green surface, biting and twisting like a switchblade’s killing thrust. Pulse thrummed and muscles burned as he dragged the canoe forward, threading through a swamp-dank maze of pale trees, the ghost sentries of a forest flooded years before. Above, the skeletal branches reached skyward into silver, their bony fingers veiled in Spanish moss and predawn mist.

As I mentioned, both books have the same publisher and both could be categorized as romantic suspense. But in terms of style and voice, they couldn't be more different. Christie Craig, a good friend of mine as well as a terrific writer, and I often do book signing events in tandem, and sometimes readers will pick up both of our releases. Because sometimes a body's in the mood to laugh and other times, she's looking for a good scare.

More often, however, we have very different audiences. And that's just fine by both of us. Because the best thing an author can do is give readers a well-defined, consistent, and repeatable reading experience with each book. Although Christie's books have scary moments, the overall emphasis is on romantic comedy. Although my books contain the leavening of humor (often of the dry or black variety), eeriness and emotional drama reign supreme.

So today, I challenge you to look at (or post in the comments section, if you'd like to share) the opening lines of your current work in progress. Then ask yourself, do they not only hook the reader, but offer a representative sample of the book's tone and your own authorial voice.


Tessy said…
Hi Colleen,

I'm working on pacing right now and hooks are so important to the pacing...a hook at every chapter beginning and end...every scene...every page it seems like.

Here's the hook for one of my mss:

If life was a roller coaster that’s not right. If life was a box of chocolates...damn, that’s been used before. If life was a reality show, the name of Jenna Case’s program would be “To live another day.” And right now she was wondering if her show had been canceled for next season.
Your hook made me smile. I liked Jenna's self-editing. :) I'd keep reading.
jbrayweber said…
Hi Colleen!
I so honored that you referenced me and my blog.
Do you know the movie Wayne's World? That's me bowing at your feet chanting "I'm not worthy." LOL!

Great post! As always!!
You always are so elegant but right on the money.

Gee, you sound pretty darn worthy to me.

And besides, we've had BtO proclaimed an official grovel-free zone. :) Although I have to admit, I really do like Wayne's World.

Thanks for the kind words, too!
Christie Craig said…
Hi Colleen,

Thanks so much for using me as an example. I love good hooky opening lines. And it's so ture. Romantic suspense can come in a variety of flavors.

I just happen to be in awe of your talent to write the darker plots. I can't wait to read Beneath Bone Lake.


Thanks, Christie! Glad you could stop by!
Teri Thackston said…
Jenn's column was wonderful--she is definitely "worthy" as you say. And your's is super as usual, Colleen. I don't dare share my current WIPs opening. I just went back and read it and even I wasn't hooked. But I'll get to work on it right away!
Better to find out now, though.

I frequently go back and rewrite a sharper opening after finishing a draft. One of my favorite writing activities is to get a stack of books and read all the openings to analyze what works and what doesn't.

Such fun!
Jo Anne said…
Great post, as always, Colleen. And I love the dichotomy between yours (does this need an apostrophe? - sigh - whatever) and Christie's first lines. Of course, I love both books.

Here's the first lines of chapter 1 of my current wip:

Jenna McAllen willingly returned to hell. Not with a smile on her face, but she came.

She could and would face down the devil, only because she didn’t want her mother to have to do it. Besides, her father was junior league in the Beelzebub department compared to the evil that ran this pit of brimstone she had once called home.

It's targeted at Super - an angsty family drama.
Jo Anne,
Thanks so much - and I love that opening of yours. Reeled me right in!

Lighting a candle for you that the editor will snap it up.

Dorothy Hagan said…
Thanks for a brain exercising post as always, Colleen. Here is a smidge...

Hot damn. There’s Disney World. Darlene smiled wide and smug as she stretched the noisy packing tape across the top of the last box. The size of this order would place her precarious finances smack in the ballpark of middle class. For a family who once cashed in pop cans to finance their Easter baskets, this was a damn sight more than they were used to having. Disney World hold onto you Mouse: the Johnsons are coming.
I loved that opening, Dorothy! Before deadline dementia hit, I read your first chapter and saw lots of talent on the page!
Dorothy Hagan said…
Thank you so very much, Colleen, for both the time and the compliment. Both mean a ton to me.

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